Skip to content

Political leadership: mental impairment is not the only road to disaster

January 15, 2018

Ian McKellen as King Lear

We should all take some comfort from the possibility that before obeying Donald Trump’s instruction to unleash fire and fury on North Korea or any other recipient of the American nuclear arsenal, the military officer responsible for launching the missiles will ask a second question: not only is the order legal, but is the balance of the Commander-in-Chief’s mind disturbed?

For that, we have to thank Michael Woolf and his paean to the President. Thanks also to a battery of psychiatrists, newspaper columnists and White House leakers, we’re treated to a flurry of speculation over his mental health every time he slurs his words, repeats himself and invents a new word on Twitter.

I suppose it was almost inevitable that it would be America’s turn to have a president whose mental faculties are questionable. After all, we’ve had an abundance of leaders in other parts of the world who have been impaired by the effects of dementia, and occasionally alcohol, since World War 2. Think of Brezhnev, Chernenko and Yeltsin, of Churchill in his final years in office, of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia (after his stroke), of Mao Zedong and Mugabe in old age.

We should also remember that there are other factors that impair performance in executive office. It’s not just dementia sufferers who damage their countries through their actions. Nobody would say that Theresa May is lacking her full faculties, yet there are many (me included) who would say that she lacks the skills to be an effective prime minister. Other recent high-profile failures include Francois Hollande of France, Gordon Brown in the UK and, arguably, George W Bush.

No matter that their personalities were vastly more palatable than Trump’s, and that they were fundamentally decent and well-meaning individuals; the question to ask is did they damage their countries more through unsuitability for office than Trump – who is seen by many as both mentally ill and incompetent – is likely to do over the next three years?

Of course, the more unfettered their power, and the more powerful their country, the more harm a leader can cause, whether through incompetence or mental impairment. Donald Trump can cause infinitely more damage than Theresa May for both reasons. Whereas the bar is set high for the removal of a president, all it takes for May to lose her job is for a majority of her colleagues in Parliament to declare that they have no confidence in her. That’s one reason why May is more likely to fall before Trump.

Theoretically, Donald Trump can bring the world’s economy to its knees with a serious misstep. He can also trigger conflict in any number of regions without actually directly involving his country. It’s some consolation that he is constrained from precipitate action by separation of powers enshrined in the US constitution. His freedom to act is also curbed by the growing counter-weight of China and Russia.

But his ability to take the ultimate step – to spark a nuclear war and thereby wipe out most of humanity – is not so constrained in the event of an imminent threat – whether real or imagined. Which is why we should be pleased that every incoherent rant and tweet increases the likelihood that the person who really does have a button on their desk will think extremely carefully before pressing it.

All the more important, you might think, when a missile alert that scares the pants off the residents of Hawaii turns out to be a bungled drill.

From → Politics, UK, USA

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: